Gone are the days when Navy's definition of a successful season was a victory over Army.
Defeating their longtime military rival is always a priority for the Midshipmen. But that's merely one goal for a team coming off a 10-win season and a 35-13 rout of Missouri in the Texas Bowl.
"Top 25, undefeated, BCS bowl game — that's all that is left. That's what the next level is," senior safety Wyatt Middleton said. "As long as we play our game and keep playing hard, our program is to the point where we can do that."
A decade ago, such talk would be ridiculous. Navy went 1-10 in 2000 and 0-10 in 2001 before Paul Johnson took over. The results were not immediately impressive: The Midshipmen won only two games in a season made memorable only by a 58-12 thrashing of Army.
Johnson's spread-option offense helped Navy go 8-5 in 2003. That launched an ongoing run of seven straight seasons in which the Midshipmen won at least eight games, captured the Commander-In-Chief's trophy (beating both Army and Air Force) and received a bowl bid.
A forgiving schedule won't be as much of an obstacle as dealing with the expectations that come with winning. Navy received some votes in the AP preseason Top 25 poll and expects to receive national attention on a weekly basis long before the Army-Navy clash in December.
"There is no question that this team is getting more preseason recognition than ever before," Niumatalolo said. "We have to keep the blinders on and not let it be a distraction. A lot of this stuff is new to Navy, and we're all human."
The star of the team is Ricky Dobbs, the ringleader of the spread-option. Despite missing nearly two games with a cracked right knee cap, Dobbs set an NCAA single-season record for quarterbacks by scoring 27 touchdowns. He also ran for 1,203 yards and passed for 1,031.
"It feels good to watch No. 4 cross the goal line. We love it when Ricky gets the touchdown," offensive tackle Jeff Battiplagia said. "He's a playmaker and he wins games for us. Watching him play, and being able to say I blocked for Ricky Dobbs, is a pretty big thrill."
If Dobbs can stay healthy, there's no telling how deceptive and prolific the option will be this season.
"This is my last football season here at Navy, so that definitely puts a whole lot of things into perspective," he said. "You kind of take it for granted until it's your last one and you know you're almost done. That's when things start coming into focus and you start paying attention to all the little details."
Navy ranked 119th last season in yards passing, and Dobbs averaged fewer than 10 throws per game. The Midshipmen may pass more often in 2010, if only to spread out a defense focused on stopping the option.
"We want to throw more with Ricky, but we're not going to become like Texas Tech," Niumatalolo said. "We know who we are."
Road games against Air Force, Wake Forest and East Carolina could be challenging, and the Midshipmen also face Notre Dame in New Jersey. But the home schedule includes Georgia Southern, Duke, Central Michigan and Arkansas State.
It all begins Sept. 6 in Baltimore against in-state rival Maryland.
"I've got a great feeling about this upcoming season," Middleton said. "Our senior class has always wanted to go out with a bang and leave our legacy. Whatever they've done before, we want to do a little better. We want to keep the program moving up."